Book review: The Mothman Prophecies
The Mothman Prophecies by John A Keel. Recommended for fun.
The Mothman Prophecies opens with a mysterious event — an unusual-looking stranger knocks on a door in rural West Virginia during a storm to ask to use a phone. The couple who live in the house can’t help him — and three weeks later both are victims of the Silver Bridge collapse. A visit from the devil, one of his minions, or the angel of death? No. As it turns out, it was Keel himself, stranded and looking for assistance. This first anecdote shows how easy it is for superstitious people to misinterpret an ordinary event.
Most of The Mothman Prophecies consists of such anecdotes, some with explanations, many without. Many, not all, occur in the Ohio valley area centering on Point Pleasant, the focal point of the “Mothman” sightings, Point Pleasant was located on the West Virginia side of the Silver Bridge, which collapsed on December 15, 1967, due to a combination of factors, including heavy, backed-up traffic and a flawed piece of steel, the failure of which triggered the bridge’s collapse.
Keel cleverly builds on anecdote after anecdote. Even if some are questionable or unbelievable, they all can’t be, or that seems to be his rationale. Dozens of witnesses can’t be mistaken, lying, or paranoid. For the susceptible, this accumulation of horror stories makes this a frightening book. Some of those people, including Keel himself, must have seen something — from the strangely moving lights in the sky to the aerodynamically impossible “Mothman,” which doesn’t flap its apparently unnecessary wings but flies straight up like a helicopter.
Keel decries “self-style investigators” and believes himself to be a thorough professional. Yet his reporting, whether first- or second-hand, is full of holes. He tells of an odd stranger with “thyroid eyes” (a common feature of these sightings) who comes into a fashionable New York City watering hole but can’t read the menu and doesn’t know how to cut or eat a steak. He tells the waitress he’s from “another world.” That is where Keel leaves the story, “a stranger in a strange land,” with some seemingly trivial but critical questions unasked and unanswered, such as: Did he understand what the check was? How did he pay? Did he know to leave a tip? If so, did he leave an appropriate one? Where did he keep his money and what condition was it in? Without answers to those questions — things that a waitress would easily remember — her assessment that he’s “another put-on artist” seems most likely.
He visits a farm where, coincidentally, the farmer has seen a UFO that frightened his cows off (in another anecdote, the exposed cows are found dead), burns out a piece of electrical equipment, and leaves behind a “fairy circle.” All this is so familiar to Keel that he doesn’t bring in someone to perform chemical analyses to see, for example, if there is any kind of residue in the circle that would help to explain its cause. The opportunity seems to be deliberately missed.
Conveniently, Keel’s “ultra-dimensional beings” operate in a way that precludes independent verification of their existence. Cameras and film malfunction. Supporting witnesses are rendered unconscious or develop amnesia. While Keel believes these beings are interested in him, they contact him primarily through third parties whose reliability is questionable. When “Jane” reports that an envelope he sent was tampered with in the mail, he never considers the possibility that this woman, whose behavior is odd, is telling him what he wants to hear.
The beings also control the behavior of contactees. Dozens of “Orientals” with “sharp features” (since when do Asians have “sharp features”?) and “thyroid eyes” are invited into homes for hours at a time, and their questions about personal matters are answered freely. Personally, I don’t know anyone who would do this.
“Jane” obligingly takes pills provided by her contacts,which make her ill and which prove to be an ordinary sulfa drug. Other people don’t hesitate to climb aboard alien ships. Perhaps most telling, many of the descriptions are vague and refer to contemporary fixtures and technology. “Frosted glass” is one of the few details provided, and “Men in Black,” who are smart enough to produced unissued license plate numbers but not smart enough to obtain late-model vehicles, use the same kind of camera and clunky flash available to 1960s reporters.
Keel cites a conversation with Gray Barker, who claimed not to have spoken with him on that occasion; Barker was later proven to be a hoaxer, and witnesses claimed that he did make the call while drunk. In fact, between “Jane’s” assertions, Keel’s stretched association of “A Pal” with “Apholes,” and his phone troubles, he seems to have become a paranoiac by the end. He even determines that the phone company is tapping his phone, but doesn’t explain why.
He assesses the reliability of each of his witnesses, but he is not reliable. For example, he discusses a map developed by anthropologists that shows that Indians avoided West Virginia. Keel doesn’t provide a source, which makes it difficult to verify this assertion. Of course, there were Indians in West Virginia, despite his claim.
The Mothman Prophecies is entertaining, and Keel tries to make the cumulative evidence compelling. The “facts” are not always accurate, the witnesses are not reliable (“Jane,” his favorite, least of all), and questions are not raised or answered.
In 2007, do “ultra-dimensional beings” tap into digital phones? VOIP? Mobiles? E-mail? Instant messages? Digital cable? Have they adapted to today’s technology? The anxieties that underlie The Mothman Prophecies seem to reflect those of the times — the fears surrounding the Cold War, Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” and big government. The Mothman Prophecies is a manifestation of the troubled times in which it was set. Today’s “Mothman” or “Indrid Cold” might be very different creatures indeed.
15 April 2007
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Is it based on real facts, that sometime occured?
The bridge collapse is real, as are certain other incidents that are recounted. The parts about doe-eyed aliens, etc., I leave to the reader’s discretion. (I don’t buy it myself.)